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|| News Item: Posted 2008-05-28

Documenting Obama's Journey Becomes Photographer's Journey
Pete Souza realizes a dream by publishing a book about Barack Obama.

By Pete Souza

Photo by
For the past couple of months, I've been consumed with the process of publishing a photography book on the rise of Barack Obama's political career. My mantra has always been "do it the right way." So I naturally wanted to keep as much control as possible in the production of this book. As I watched the first signature of the book come off the press last week, I panicked when the first photograph of Obama was reproducing on the page like an overexposed white guy.

My coverage of Sen. Obama began on his first day in the U.S. Senate in January 2005. At the time, I was the Washington photographer for the Chicago Tribune. One of my colleagues, Jeff Zeleny, had proposed a series on Obama's first year in the Senate and asked me if I was interested ("Of course," I replied). Zeleny and I then had lunch in late 2004 with Obama's incoming communications director, Robert Gibbs. He promised cooperation, but then became hard to pin down.

I pestered Gibbs with e-mails and phones during the next few weeks to confirm my access for that first day. He finally came through, and directed me to meet up with Obama at his hotel. I introduced myself to the senator and told him I was tagging along with him for the day. "Glad to have you," he replied.

I made so many good photographs of him on day one that I knew I was on to something special. As a photo subject, Obama was a natural. He didn't have any overt camera awareness and went about his business as I went about mine. The way he interacted with his kids was very genuine. I tried to blend in and not be a nuisance, but I also wanted to establish a certain level of access right away.

Two of the pictures of him with his kids were published the next day in the Tribune and our sister paper, the Los Angeles Times. When I caught up with the senator later that week in downstate Illinois, he came over to tell me how much he liked the photographs with his kids. His initial response to these early photographs undoubtedly helped my future access.

During the first few weeks, I began to believe that this guy might someday become president of the United States. I consciously thought about my coverage in that vain. Sure I was trying to make pictures that would be publishable right away, but I was also thinking ahead of how these pictures might be viewed in the future. It helped, as a means of comparison, that I had been official White House photographer for President Reagan. I had seen first-hand a president up close, both in public and private moments.

My coverage of Obama was extensive during 2005 and included a trip with him to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. I continued documenting him in 2006, and accompanied him on a trip to Africa, when he returned to the Kenyan village where his father was born.

As Obama was gearing up to run for president, I asked the Tribune if I could do a book on the rise of his political career. If anything, I thought such a book could help sustain my access as the presidential campaign proceeded. I knew that campaigns usually give the weekly news magazines backstage access, but rarely do the same for newspapers. Yes, I had already established my own access, but I also know that priorities change once a national campaign gets underway. The Tribune was reluctant to have their name attached to such a book, which is certain understandable. I countered that they let me do the book without Tribune involvement. They said no way. Because they had allowed a Tribune reporter who had covered his Senate campaign to write a book, I thought this was a double standard.

Photo by Pete Souza

Photo by Pete Souza

"The Rise of Barack Obama" comes off the press in Leominster, Mass.
Nonetheless, on the day Obama announced his candidacy for president, I was backstage with him as he waited to be introduced. One photo I made of Obama with his family was very poignant; I filed that and several other behind-the-scenes images in addition to the ones from the event itself. But I certainly felt deflated when "the photo" was not published in the next day's paper. (It will be published for the first time with the publication of my book.)

As I documented the early months of his presidential campaign, rarely did anything get in the newspaper. I began feeling a sense of despair, knowing that my access would surely disappear if the campaign never saw anything in print. And if the Tribune wasn't going to let me publish a book, I didn't know if I had it in me to continue my coverage of Obama.

An opportunity to teach at Ohio University came in the midst of all this, and it coincided with a buy-out offer from the Tribune. It seemed like the time was right, so I said goodbye to the Tribune, and goodbye to my coverage of Obama. Since I was leaving the Tribune, I asked again if I could publish a book, and they again said no.

During the latter half of 2007 and early 2008, I watched the campaign from afar. Quite frankly, I wasn't surprised when Obama won Iowa and then became the front runner. When I produced a Blurb (print-on-demand) book titled, The Rise of Barack Obama, my colleagues at OU urged me to try to get it published. So in February 2008, I once again approached the Tribune, this time sending a copy of the Blurb book to the executive editor with a hand-written note and lobbying several other editors. I even offered to pay a license fee to use my own photographs in such a book. Instead of an immediate "no", the response was "maybe."

This gave me some hope, and I began to think about publishers. Coincidentally, the president of Triumph Books in Chicago had just e-mailed me. I had done a Reagan book with Triumph in 2004, and had kept them abreast of my attempts to do an Obama book. I wasn't totally happy with the production of the Reagan book, and thus had some reservations about whether Triumph could do the kind of quality book that I had in mind. I knew they could get it out in the market place quickly because of their experience producing sports books for newspapers when their hometown team wins the Super Bowl or World Series.

Meanwhile my former boss at the Tribune, Torry Bruno, carried the torch for me in Chicago, working to convince his superiors to let me proceed with the Obama book. On a Friday in early April, after a series of frantic e-mails and phone calls, I finally received the green light. I'm pretty sure my colleagues at OU heard me shout out when I received the final word that I could publish a book.

In my negotiations with Triumph, I insisted that I be able to hire my own designer (at my own expense). I also wanted the book to be on heavyweight matte paper, with a spot varnish on the photographs. We had decided to reproduce the photographs in black and white. They chose the size of the book, both in format (9"x10") and in number of pages (160).

I asked Julie Elman, a fellow professor at Ohio University, if she was interested in designing the book before I even had the final okay from the Tribune. She had already designed a mock-up cover, which I immediately sent to Triumph. The next day Triumph sent me an advertisement-using her cover-they planned to show to Barnes and Noble, Amazon and some other booksellers to gauge interest. I e-mailed it to Julie (we were on spring break), and she replied, "HOLY SHIT!!!" The fun had just begun.

Photo by Pete Souza

Photo by Pete Souza

"The Rise of Barack Obama" comes off the press in Leominster, Mass.
The contract soon came together with Triumph. It included a production calendar with a promise for us to submit three 16-page signatures each week during the next four weeks, with the tenth and final signature due May 2. Yikes! Less than a month to produce a 160-page book. Was this even doable? Julie and I mapped out a schedule and we told each other we could do it. Fortunately, with the Blurb book already in hand, I had a rough start to my edit. But I still went through my entire coverage of Obama during the past three years to make sure I wasn't missing anything. And, with the thought that someday this book would come, I had made every single frame as a RAW file.

April was a hectic month. During the day, I'd prepare and teach my daily class, while also working with Julie on the edit and layout. Then at night, I'd tone the photographs that we had finalized for the book each day. We also worked ahead of schedule, so I join the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania for a few days to gather some fresh photographs for the last section of the book. In anticipation that the book was closer to fruition, I had already completed some coverage during my spring break. My main goal for the last section was to show the hoopla, and the contrast from the early part of the presidential campaign, for a candidate now deemed the front-runner.

There was a strange void when we sent in the last signature on May 2. We had met every deadline and Triumph was extremely happy that we did. Now I could hardly wait until the book went to press on May 22. I was hopeful when the first proofs began to roll in and, for the most part, everything looked great. We caught a handful of typos, and a few photos needed to be re-toned. The first "wet proofs,"-printed on the press with the actual paper and spot varnish-also looked quite good. "Open the mid tones, and make the black blacker," were our comments back to Triumph, who agreed and relayed that sentiment to the printer.

Then I flew to Massachusetts, where the printing plant was located.

Purchase The Rise of Barack Obama:

"Stop the presses!" is something I thought you only heard in movies. When I saw that first picture of Obama, looking like an overexposed white guy, my heart sank. I compared it to the final proof. This showed definitively that it was reproducing about 30-40% lighter than the original. Fortunately, I wasn't the one that yelled, "Stop the presses;" it was the salesman for the printing company. Stopping the presses meant somebody was going to lose a lot of money. And everybody was looking at me.

Photo by Pete Souza

Photo by Pete Souza

Pages are checked as "The Rise of Barack Obama" comes off the press in Leominster, Mass.
What followed during the next few hours was a frustrating series of phone calls and meetings between the publisher, the printer, and me. Someone said, "We opened the highlights like you asked." We had asked them to "open the mid-tones."

There also seemed to be a big disconnect between the final proofs and the final pages. I had toned all the photographs myself on a calibrated monitor using the specifications given to me from the printer. But as I looked over the shoulder of their pre-press person, I could see that the photographs on their monitor looked like crap. Which begged a series of questions. Shouldn't the profile be set up so that how it looks on a calibrated monitor is how it will look when it comes off the press? Shouldn't the photos on their monitor look somewhat like they looked on my monitor? And shouldn't the pages coming off the press come close to matching the final proof? I asked these questions but never got a satisfactory answer.

What did happen are the people working at the printing plant tried extremely hard to do the best job they could. They actually stopped the presses several times on their own when they saw certain photographs weren't matching up when they crossed from the last page of one signature to the first page of another.

As I look at the pages now-back home in Ohio-they look a lot better than I thought a couple of days ago. Yes, some are a little too dark, some are a little too light, and some are a little too flat, but as everybody keeps telling me, "The average consumer will NEVER see what you see." With a print run of 75,000 books, I sure hope they are right.

(Pete Souza is a freelance photographer and assistant professor of photojournalism at Ohio University's School of Visual Communication. Visit Souza's member page:

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Book: The Rise of Barack Obama

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